Natural Cork - Sustainability and the Role of the Cork Oak Forest

A friend for life

Cork oak forests, referred to as montados, are the lungs of the environment, the economy and the society of Mediterranean countries. They have such an important role for nature and people that they are protected by law. In Portugal, where there is the largest cork oak forest area in the world, the cork oak is the national tree and has been protected by law since the 13th century. A growing awareness of the value of the ecosystem of the cork oak forest has led to important initiatives in reforestation and the systematisation of good practices. It is a way of ensuring the future, without forgetting the old saying: «Whoever cares for their grandchildren, plants a cork oak».

image_1image_2image_3image_4image_5image_6image_7

The largest and oldest cork oak in the world is called the Whistler Tree. The name comes from the sound made by the numerous songbirds which land on its branches, reaching a height of over 14 metres. Although it is still possible to establish its direct contribution to the cork industry - it is a unique tree -, it is impossible to calculate how many animals it has sheltered, fed with its acorns and the extent to which it has contributed to fertilising and irrigating the land and even to fighting global warming.

Similarly to the Whistler Tree on the Alentejo plain, millions of other cork oaks all over the Mediterranean basin support a unique and fragile ecology which constitutes a habitat for rare and endangered species. It's not just the over two hundred animal species that find ideal conditions for survival in the cork oak forest - per each thousand square meters, there are 135 plant species, many of which are medicinal, aromatic or used in cooking.

These forests form one of the richest ecosystems in terms of biodiversity, being recognised by environmental NGOs as one of the 35 world hotspots in this field. They are on a par with paradises such as Amazonia, the Andes or Borneo.

Perfectly adapted to the warm climate and arid soil, cork oak forests protect against erosion and resulting desertification and are a natural barrier against fire, due to the weak combustion of cork, which acts as an outer layer of skin on the cork oak. The roots retain rainwater, forming vital watersheds and absorb nutrients from the depths of the earth, which are later returned to the soil through the leaves, which become a natural fertiliser.

A forest of opportunities

For centuries cork oak forests have been an environmental, social and economic pillar, playing a decisive role in the lives of thousands of people in Southern Europe and North Africa - over one hundred thousand, who directly and indirectly depend on these forests, according to the WWF - World Wild Fund for Nature. A wide range of agricultural, forestry, forest grazing, hunting and economic activities is based on cork oak culture - including the cork and wine industries, which are the paradigm of sustainable development.

Around 340 thousand tonnes of cork are extracted annually from the 2.3 million hectares of world cork oak forests, which in the cork stopper market translates into approximately 12 billion units. In Portugal, the cork sector plays a particularly important role. Portugal accounts for 55% of world cork production, exporting around 90% of raw material, which is mainly processed. The cork stopper is the most representative, accounting for 70% of the value of these exports.

The cork stopper's important contribution

It is the cork stopper that ensures the maintenance of the cork oak forest and, as a result, the possibility for hundreds of populations to continue to live and work in arid and semi-arid areas. Over half the extracted cork is used in the manufacture of all types of stoppers, the rest being used in other applications. Thus, the cork and wine industries share the same responsibility: not only do they maintain a key economic activity but also contribute to the viability of the cork oak forest.

Using cork keeps the forest alive, because regular stripping contributes to cork oaks regenerating naturally. By self-regenerating, the cork oak also strengthens another of its surprising features: its ability to absorb carbon dioxide. A stripped cork oak absorbs, on average, five times more CO2. It is estimated that every year cork oak forests retain up to 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, a sizeable contribution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the main cause of climate change.

An economy of the future

The environmental and socio-economic importance of the cork oak forest is so valuable that several organisations, among which the WWF, the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) and the European Cork Federation (C. E. Liège), with Corticeira Amorim's participation, have developed initiatives aimed at encouraging good practices and rewarding agro-forestry owners who contribute to improving essential services of the cork oak forest ecosystem.

These forests are a perfect example of the balance between preserving the environment and sustainable development. They are also the foundations of an economy of the future, which encourages the increase of the cork oak forest area in Portugal. Portugal, which boasts 716,000 hectares of cork oak forest, has been carrying out important reforesting at a rate of ten thousand hectares per year, that is, an annual growth of around 4%. Two new cork oaks are planted for each old cork oak. If all goes well, when they reach the age of the Whistler Tree in over two hundred years, they shall also have made a fundamental contribution to the vitality of the planet's ecosystem. With their cork, they will also have helped maintain thousands of jobs, by keeping people on their land producing millions of cork stoppers.

To learn more about Corticeira Amorim's culture of sustainability, visit the website www.amorim.com